Where will those displaced by climate go?

History has shown that those who are displaced tend to go to cities.

The latest World Bank estimates on internal climate migration suggest that by 2050, the numbers will reach 216 million each year due to slow-onset climate change impacts from water scarcity, low crop productivity, and sea level rise, and also less livability from heat stress, extreme events, and land loss. Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will be the hardest hit.

silhouette of climate refugees in a background of effects of climate change.Where will those displaced by climate go? By and large they will go to cities. 70% of the world’s population will be in cities by 2050. And history has shown that those who are displaced tend to go to cities, where there is economic opportunity and where, chances are, they have contacts.

By and large, they will go to the cities that are cooler – and those places are largely in the Global North. This is an enormous challenge for the coming decades. By 2050, cities are going to have to learn how to accommodate millions of newcomers, and this is going to require new thinking about equitable development, or how to address inequality and increase opportunity on a large scale.

We are trying to remake our cities with climate mitigation. Across North America, we are trying measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as building new parks and bikeways and transit lines. But it isn’t easy, and that’s partly because of the legacy of urban renewal. Neighbourhoods were traumatized by government actions, and still do not trust the public sector as a result.

Imagine all the standard sources of displacement pressures that low-income communities face. Now add to that, new pressure from climate mitigation measures. We call this double vulnerability. And you can find lots of new research on this website for my own research on this issue - the Urban Displacement Project. And so, neighbourhoods were, and still are, traumatized by government actions, and do not trust the public sector as a result.

Now, let’s outline just a few ways that climate displacement brings a new and different set of issues to cope with:

a. Solastalgia is place attachment, and communities that are displaced by climate are particularly prone to suffer from this sense of loss because their places are usually gone forever.

b. The new climate displacement is also different from prior waves of immigration because we are talking about a movement mostly from developing countries in the South to advanced industrial nations in the North

c. We are seeing new cultural and political tensions – receiving communities often battle over cultural issues and conflicts can be violent as migrants are forced to integrate.

Sure, we can try to make an analogy comparing climate migration today to the Great Northern Migration of Blacks from the South – 6 million in 60 years, however, it’s crucial to remember that we are now talking about hundreds of millions of people, only a fraction of which will be able to cross the borders of their countries to go North.

Another important point to consider is that at the time of the Great Migration, we had tremendous job growth in cities – manufacturing and the war machine at work – along with new mechanisms to build and finance housing construction at scale – for example, subdivision development and the VA act. We no longer have job and housing growth and opportunities at this scale to accommodate newcomers.

And so, how should we advance justice in the era of climate displacement? To examine this question, the School of Cities is highlighting the theme of climate, justice, and cities this year in its research, education, and outreach activities.


This blog piece summarizes remarks made by SofC Director Prof. Karen Chapple at the Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Climate Displacement that have been edited for length and format.


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